In Moscow, Idaho, Conservative “Christian Reconstructionists” Thrive Amid Gospel Unrest
But while some of the largest Protestant denominations in America, such as the Southern Baptists, continue to bleed limbs, a small group of conservative evangelicals seem to be counteracting the trend – though they number only around 1,300.
Over the past 30 years, believers from across the United States and beyond have gathered in Moscow, a city in northern Idaho with a population of approximately 25,000. Here, as members of the Christ Church congregation, they opposed the cultures of modern America. Guided by a controversial social theory known as “Christian reconstructionWhich argues that biblical law should apply in today’s context, they turn to the Bible to understand how they believe American institutions should be reformed. Followers believe abortion rights and same-sex marriage, among other evidence of what they would see as moral decline, will ultimately be repealed. Their goal is simple – the conversion of the people of Moscow to their way of thinking as the first step towards the conversion of the world.
This hope may seem unrealistic. But as a scholar who traced the rise of the movement in my book “Survival and Resistance in Evangelical Americaâ, I know that these believers have already taken steps towards this goal.
In Moscow, the community established churches, a classical Christian school, a liberal arts college, a music conservatory, a publishing house, and the ingredients of a media empire. With books published by major specialist and university presses, and a talk show on Amazon Prime, the community is preparing the agenda for a theologically vigorous and politically reactionary evangelical revival.
These believers are led by conservatives Pastor Douglas Wilson, whose opinions on gender, marriage and many other topics are controversialeven among the most conservative Christians. For over 30 years Wilson has campaigned against the influence of everything from atheism to feminism.
In doing so, he drew significant critical attention – especially from the late journalist and prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, with whom he debated whether Christianity was good for the world in a series of exchanges that have then turned in a book.
The community Wilson leads in Moscow is still small. It is difficult to get figures on the growth of Christ Church in terms of numbers, but my research and conversations with members of the congregation suggest that it is expanding. What is clear is that in just over three decades, Christ Church has grown from a little-known congregation to a congregation generating media attention and attracting the attention of prominent political figures.
The community has created a K-12 school, a member of a association hundreds of classical Christian schools strongly influenced by Wilson’s educational beliefs. Testifying to the group’s political reach, in 2019, Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska was one of the speakers at the association’s annual convention.
As I note in my book, the community liberal arts college send students in doctoral programs in various disciplines at the Ivy League and at major European universities – it is not an island educational world. His small group of closely related authors have worked with publishers such as Random House and Oxford University Press.
And then there is the talk show on Amazon Prime.
This talk show, “Rampant Man,” gives an indication of why this community is gaining influence despite evangelical decline. Wilson, as the host, uses the platform to expose the ideas that underpin his vision for Christian renewal – developing an explicitly Bible-based agenda on the revival of traditional masculinity.
As the title suggests, âMan Rampantâ promotes extremely muscular Christianity. Forget Jesus as well-meaning, meek, and meek; the first episode doomed the “sin of empathy. “Empathy,” Wilson says, “is not a good thing.”
The “Rampant Man” agenda is bolstered on Wilson’s website, which appeals to creators living in the Muscovite community to turn its arguments into striking visual metaphors, and where, while rejecting racism, he argues that “it’s really good to be white. “
Go local to convert America
In America’s crowded religious marketplace, Wilson’s message is clearly distinct.
One of Wilson’s most important influences is the ending RJ Rushdoony, an Armenian-American Presbyterian theologian who aimed to protect Protestants in the United States from suffering of the kind genocide from where his parents escaped. Frustrated by the otherworldly many American Christian denominations, whose adherents he feared would preach more on heaven than on earth, and their complacency with what he perceived to be a hostile liberal culture, Rushdoony set out to develop biblical principles on how society should be organized.
The Ten Commandments should no longer be seen as an artifact in the history of morality, argued Rushdoony. Instead, they should be understood as spelling out the fundamentals of how the modern state works. “Thou shalt not steal” ruled out the possibility of inflation, which Rushdoony said devalued monetary assets and was therefore a form of theft. And “You will have no other gods than me” excluded any possibility of religious pluralism.
Rushdoony promoted these ideals in titles such as 1973’s “Biblical law institutesâ- a 1,000-page exhibition of the Ten Commandments which called for both the abolition of the prison system and a massive extension of the death penalty.
Christians would only be safe in American society if it was shaped by their religious values, he argued. But the Christian America he foresaw would not be secured by revolution or any form of top-down political change – only by the transformation of individual lives, families, cities and states.
This strategy of promoting beliefs at the local level explains why Christian reconstructionists, like those led by Wilson, prefer to focus energies in small towns. Reconstructionists in Moscow believe they can have a much greater cultural impact if they can ensure significant demographic change, either by converting existing residents or by encouraging others to settle in the area.
Avoid the existential crisis
The stated goal of Wilson’s congregation is to make Moscow a Christian city; at present only about a third of Moscow residents identify as “religious, According to a 2019 report.
But it was Wilson’s attitude about public health measures during the pandemic that recently brought him and his church back to the attention of political leaders. Throughout the pandemic, he has argued that mask requirements reveal the government’s hypocrisy. In September 2020, Wilson led his congregation in the illegal chanting of hymns outside City Hall which led to the arrest of several church members – whose footage was retweeted by President Trump, who suggested that the arrests of the Moscow congregation were emblematic of what would happen to evangelicals if Democrats took control. âDEMS WANTS TO CLOSE YOUR CHURCHES PERMANENTLY,â the former president tweeted in all caps.
And yet, whatever the fears of the former president, Wilson’s congregation is growing. As large denominations, like the Southern Baptists, divide in the debate over critical race theory, Wilson’s Church shows how some congregations might respond to the existential crisis of evangelism – and eventually prosper.
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Crawford Gribben received funding from the Irish Research Council for a research project on “Radical religion in the transatlantic world”.